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The Detroit RiverWalk: Re-establishing Detroit as a World-Class, International Riverfront

By Kristi Gilbert, JJR


After its dedication, the East RiverWalk transforms the riverfront into a new, international front door to the city.
Photo Credits: Images courtesy of JJR


The east riverfront just prior to construction was a post-industrial, neglected edge given over to parking lots, outdoor storage and cement silos.

In a bold move to take back the river, JJR and its client, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC), worked with the city of Detroit, major stakeholders and private property owners to transform parking lots, cement silos, underutilized industrial sites and maintenance yards on the riverfront into the Detroit East RiverWalk.

The RiverWalk is a continuous, public linear park with a pedestrian promenade, non-motorized recreation trail, major plazas and specialty features. Thanks to the recent transformation of this three and a half mile stretch on Detroit's riverfront, river access is being made available to the citizens of Detroit and the region as visitors bring downtown back to life and help re-establish Detroit as a world-class, international riverfront.

Rivard Plaza seen from the river reveals the existence of additional boat mooring and the concrete capped metal sheet pilings that needed to be incorporated into the design. Silver metal is used as a unifying design element to reflect the city's industrial heritage, seen here in lighting fixtures, seating, bollards, canopy posts, signage and the RiverWalk railing.

A Complex Process

JJR began the design process with a series of workshops--one of which close to 200 people participated in--that benchmarked other communities across the nation and world. The design challenge was to create a unified and coherent RiverWalk with a wide variety of active and passive spaces, addressing different site and river conditions within a complex urban environment. Another challenge involved the variety of conditions at the river's edge. As a former industrial site, the proposed RiverWalk was adjacent to concrete foundations, piers and various conditions of seawall edges, all of which had to be incorporated into the design. JJR developed a series of unifying elements with consistent materials and finishes that include paving systems, railings, lighting, site furniture and wayfinding graphics to maintain the RiverWalk's identity throughout the district.

The design of Rivard Plaza includes an interpretation of the river's history, geography and ecology. Visitors love finding their home community on the engraved granite map of the Detroit River and its 37 mile-long corridor. The map reveals a little known fact about Detroit--it is the only place in the country where Canada is south of the United States.

Multi-Use Themes

Activities such as walking, biking, in-line skating, boating, and fishing are just a few of the multiple waterfront recreation opportunities the RiverWalk provides. Small surprises and unusual features punctuate the experience, such as the River Carousel at Rivard Plaza and the Labyrinth at Gabriel Richard Park. The River Carousel promises to become a defining attraction for the City of Detroit for decades to come. The programming of the RiverWalk had to consider the lack of nearby retail and commercial activity for users. As a result, the two completed plazas and pavilions now provide concessions, restrooms, outdoor seating and space for equipment and storage.

The interactive water feature at Gabriel Richard parks allows for a relaxing historic place to view the river, MacArthur Bridge and Belle Isle. Each plaza has its own unique water feature themed to represent different aspects of water and the river. An outdoor sound system and wireless internet connections are also available at each pavilion.

The pavilions are simple, modern spaces organized along a masonry-spine wall that gives the plazas architectural scale, structure and color. Each pavilion is covered by a large, tensile canopy that provides shaded seating and acts as a major iconic element--a beacon visible from East Jefferson Avenue, a major city thoroughfare a few blocks north of the riverfront. Uplights on the pavilion canopies and special light wands in the plazas create striking night views.

Integral color concrete pavement and arcing jointing is used through the RiverWalk to reference the river while designating the primary pedestrian pathway. Located on the river side of the railing are boat moorings. The RiverWalk in the rear extending out into the water rests atop a newly constructed, pile-supported walkway. African textile design and kente cloth patterns inspired the design of linear spaces along the RiverWalk and serve to visually tie in adjacent architectural elements.

Many Challenges Met

One of the many challenges in creating a cohesive design was providing a series of connected walkways and paths that can be easily identified as the RiverWalk as it moves past a series of unrelated properties and land uses. One of the design solutions is a series of unique and easily identifiable pavement patterns and colors. Integral color concrete pavement is used throughout the RiverWalk to designate the primary pedestrian pathway. The concrete pavement integrates several colors and arcing jointing patterns that reference the river's geography, natural resources and the cultural and maritime histories of the various properties.

At the Rivard Plaza, the custom-designed River Carousel celebrates the Detroit River by featuring 12 different native species of birds, fish, waterfowl and amphibians; it also includes a few mythical creatures, such as a river monster and river mermaid. "It made you feel like you were really in the water. I could ride it a hundred times," exclaimed one young River Carousel fan. Light wands, canopy uplighting and reflections in Rivard Plaza's water feature create a striking night-lighting effect.

The orientation of plazas and the paving layout follow the line of remnant pilings that once serviced the ship building industries of the east riverfront. At the major plazas, and in a number of sections of the walkway, cultural influences including African textile and Kente cloth designs inspired the concrete unit paving patterns to provide visual interest to the spaces. In several locations along the RiverWalk special pavement is integrated into the design to create interpretive, contemplative, and educational experiences.

The pavilion and its shade canopy at Rivard Plaza create areas for relaxation and people watching with great views of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario. The pavilions on the RiverWalk are organized around a masonry spine wall for scale and color and include space for concessions, bike rental, staff and security offices. Plantings of ornamental onion and tufted hair grass create a contrasting texture.

History and Culture Combined

One segment of private property did not have enough land area to accommodate the full RiverWalk dimension and recreational trail. Rather than re-route the RiverWalk inland, a pile-supported walkway over the water adjacent to the existing seawall was constructed. Recognizing the great public benefit of continuous riverfront access, state and federal agencies supported the construction of a walkway beyond the harbor line, which was a rare permit approval.

The richness of the river's maritime history and geography were interpreted throughout the RiverWalk's design. At Rivard Plaza, a sculptural glass wall outlines the location of the Detroit River within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, giving visitors a quick geography lesson on how the giant ocean freighters they see on the river traveled in from the Atlantic Ocean. The plaza also incorporates boat mooring bollards to allow boats to be accessed directly from the RiverWalk.

Because the Detroit River is a major migratory flyway for birds, waterfowl, and butterflies in North America, a Butterfly Garden has been created in Gabriel Richard Park at the RiverWalk's eastern terminus. Many different flowering trees, shrubs and perennials (such as yellowwood, tulip tree, Japanese flowering crab, butterfly bush, rose of Sharon, Tardiva hydrangea, Korean spice viburnum, blue fortune hyssop, tall coreopsis, rose mallow giant hibiscus and autumn fire sedum) capture the interest of migrating Monarch butterflies and other species.

Sustainability and Nature

Because the Detroit River is a major migratory flyway for birds, waterfowl and butterflies in North America, a Butterfly Garden has been created in Gabriel Richard Park at the RiverWalk's eastern terminus. Many different flowering trees, shrubs and perennials capture the interest of migrating Monarch butterflies and other species.

The use of sustainable materials and practices was also an important goal in designing the RiverWalk. Although the RiverWalk did not fit the architecture-focused LEED certification process, "green" principles were applied wherever possible. Concrete crushers on-site rubbilized existing concrete pavements for re-use as sub-base materials for the RiverWalk and other projects in the region. In addition, the pavilions at Rivard and Gabriel Richard use recycled rubber into the flooring materials. The RiverWalk's design also encourages users to adopt sustainable practices by providing recycling bins along the pathways.

The RiverWalk at its southern terminus, Gabriel Richard Plaza reveals the relationship of the walk to the river. The ramp, which has handicapped access, is one of the many areas along the walkway with access for fishing. To acknowledge the river's cultural heritage, pear trees planted at each plaza honor the tradition of the early French settlers who planted 12 pear trees (one for each apostle) at the river boundary of their ribbon farms.

Planning for the Future

The RiverWalk is part of the larger economic reinvestment strategy for the greater downtown area of Detroit. New residential units, retail, and commercial uses are in the planning stages for the riverfront district adjacent to the RiverWalk. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has raised $102 million dollars to design, construct and maintain the East RiverWalk starting with a $50 million dollar challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation--the largest single challenge grant ever given by the Foundation to any organization for one project. The Conservancy continues to work to raise the remaining funds needed to fulfill an endowment for maintaining the RiverWalk in perpetuity.

The Conservancy also continues to work with its partners and the City of Detroit in extending the reach of the RiverWalk with an additional one-and one-half mile greenway connection to the north along the Dequindre Cut, the development of Phase 2 of the 31 acre Tri-Centennial State Park and Harbor, a 21,000 square foot Public Dock and Terminal and other projects still in the planning phase.

At Gabriel Richard Plaza, a labyrinth provides another special site amenity--a contemplative experience as one walks along the pattern to its center. Throughout the RiverWalk, a plant palette of native species (such as red sunset maple, tulip tree, serviceberry, bloodgood London planetree, green mountain boxwood, Miss Kim lilac and dwarf fountain grass) was selected to meet specific criteria for the river environment, including hardiness, color, maintenance and four-season interest.

Results that Work

Two of the most significant results of the Detroit East RiverWalk have been the restoration of community pride and the changed perceptions of Detroiters, former residents and visitors. At the opening dedication, looking over the new Rivard Plaza and River Carousel, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said, "Together we created this beautiful miracle. This is all about the next Detroit and the next Michigan." The Detroit Free Press stated in a 2007 editorial, "The riverside has never been this inviting. Detroiters...have a new front porch. There could hardly be a finer place to invite the rest of the world to stop by."

In response to another positive Detroit Free Press editorial in May 2008, a blogger commented online, "I took my 70-year-old mother to Belle Isle for a picnic last summer and then to the RiverWalk. It was the first time she had been downtown in 20-plus years. Like many Detroiters, in the late '60s she couldn't get out of the city fast enough. Let me tell you how shocked she was--shocked at how nice everything and everyone was and she can't wait to get back."


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November 22, 2019, 1:40 pm PDT

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